Into the dream of Turkmenbashi
15.05.2007 - 17.05.2007
We spent out last Iranian night in the surprisingly good (if expensive) hotel in Sarakhs, a town split in half by the Iran-Turkmenistan border.
Unfortunately, when we came to leaving, the hotel refused to give me my passport back. That's because they didn't have it. The police did. After a long and futile phone conversation with the police it seemed I had to go to the station.
Yep, I had overstayed my visa, and the hotel manager took me to the station on his bike. Luckily the head policemen was quite friendly guy, and I pleaded with him to let me out of the country. The other option would be to send me back to Mashhad to extend my visa, which would waste money and a day. Plus there was a chance that we could not be allowed into Turkmenistan because of this since our visas and our tour started that day.
The policeman chatted and joked with his superior, and eventually said it was okay, as long as I got out of the country immedeately. Since we were planning to cross anyway, it wasn't a problem. My bags were packed. Iran wasn't that great anyway.
Anyway, the Iranian side just some formalities, although they did X-ray our bag (for alcohol and pork apparently). At the last Iranain point some soldiers took away our playing cards (they're also illegal). I guess they were bored. They were assholes, but they also had big guns so we didn't argue.
After a rediculously expensive minibus trip across a small metal bridge through probably the most mined border on earth (in the cold war this was the border of the "free world" and the USSR), we were in Turkmenistan. I don't blame you if you've ever heard of it, but it's the craziest country on earth.
The first Turkmen border post was straight out of a James Bond movie (from the 70s). A small wooden shack containing a huge guy containing a mouth full of gold teeth. He tried using his little wind up phone, but unfortunately it didn't work until he smashed it against the wall a couple of times. Whilst this was all happening, illiterate Turkmen tennager's with AKs walked around harassing the Iranian truck drivers crossing the other way. I hit one of them in the face with the bus door when I opened it, but it looked like he was used to being hit, so it was fine.
Anyway, the wind-up phone worked (when he shouted loud enough), and our initial check was successful, so we moved to the main border post. Where, we spent 2 hours.
First, a medical check, consisting of us talking football with the doctor (I didn't know it was a medial) until he asked if we were healthy, and then let us through. Then we had to pay some guy to enter their amazing country. Then we had to fill out about 10 forms, declaring everything we owned, short of underwear. Then, after a bag check, and about 10 passport checks, they let us through. That sounded a lot quicker than it was.
As expected, the first thing we saw on the other side was a statue of Turkmenbashi. That’s Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov, Father of all Turkmen, the crazy (now dead) dictator that ran Turkmenistan like his own amusement park.
There, we met our guide. He was a standard issue homo-soveticus, Dima. He was pound of being Turkmen, but wasn't, didn't speak the language and wouldn't look out of place in Archangelsk. We jumped in his jeep and drove into the emptiness that makes up most of Turkmenistan (that and police checks every so often).
Yeah, Turkemenistan is mainly nothing. You drive and drive and see flat and endless nothing, not even road signs. Occasionally there is a person in the middle of nowhere, but they add to the randomness. After a whole load of nothing, we got to the village of Mary, the third biggest city in Turkmenistan.
Mary is a pretty nasty Soviet city (concrete buildings, random wild weeds everywhere), except that in the centre there was a gold statue of Turkmenbashi, and a memorial to his mum. Our hotel was a fairly decent (by our standards) falling apart soviet hotel generally frequented by Turkish truckers.
Anyway, after walking around Mary for the day, we didn't really see much. There's not much there. We had some decent shashlyk though, paid for with notes all depicting Turkmenbashi, of course.
The next day, we drove to Old Merv, one of the greatest cities of the olden days. The level of development of the area was at a similar time and scale to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India (on the Amu Darya River, whilst the others had the Tigris, Euphrates, the Nile, the Yangtze and the Ganges respectively). Unfortunately, the remains are in Turkmenistan, so no-one has ever heard of it.
The ruins aren't great to look at either. Just big mud hills covered in tiny pottery fragments. The hills kind of resemble the walls and buildings of a city, but there isn't really much there. Only a tiny part of it has been excavated, so you feel like you could be treading on ancient treasures. The site is huge (100 km squared), and when we were there, there were only two people excavating: Two bored looking Turkmen with shovels sitting around drinking tea.
As usual with things in this area, it was trashed by Genghis Khan, rebuilt, then trashed again by Timur. After that people gave up. There is one solid building though, the 10th century mausoleum of Soltan Sanjar, but the extensive reconstruction makes it look very modern, and apparently the Uzbek reconstructors got it wrong anyway. But it still seemed like a pilgrimage site to some Turkmen people, who touched the tomb, moved their hands over their faces, then walked around it three times before leaving. People in this region (central Asia that is) have a strange mix of customs that have roots in Paganism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism (Zarathustra apparently lived in Merv for a while) and Islam. That's what Dima said anyway.
After that, we got onto the biggest highway in Turkmenistan, which connects Ashgabat (the capital) to the second and third cities (Turkmenabat and Mary). It wasn't really a highway, just a small road, devoid of anything except some random unexcavated archeological sites, and some nice views of the mountains marking the beginning of the Iranian plateau to the south. Oh yeah, and of course there were police checks.
Eventually, we reached the surreal marble and gold crazyness that is Ashgabat.